Space, Race, and Grace

The Dragon rocket roared and lifted off from NASA Cape Canaveral.  It flawlessly sped away from earth into the pristine realms of space.   Down below at Cape Canaveral, the people cheered.   But far away in Minneapolis USA, the crowd was not looking up.  The Black Lives Matter groups were protesting the senseless killing of a black man by the police.  Soon rioting, looting, and more violence will occur. Soon, amazingly, the astronauts would reach the space station and dock with it.   Once inside, they would meet with their colleagues already there and then together all would talk to the cameras.  Millions watched the five men with superior physiques and intelligence as they spoke with mission-control on earth.  Tens of millions watched the protests and the violence, which would grip the country in the coming days.

The next day, Elon Musk, the prophet of space travel,  sent a letter to all his employees.  He declared that now that the Dragon mission was successful, all resources of Space X will be focused on developing the Starship.  The Starship is the massive rocket developed by Space X, designed to take humans to the moon and then to Mars.  Elon Musk’s stated humanitarian mission is to colonize Mars so that mankind can survive.  Survive the dwindling resources on planet earth, an asteroid hit, or some other calamity. Except that there are still plenty of resources on earth and an asteroid hit is a remote possibility.  Implicit in Musk’s endeavor is the message that somehow, if mankind can go into outer space, most of its problems will be solved. Such is his passion that it seems not only a mission for mankind’s survival but for its salvation.  It is written that he had a traumatic childhood in South Africa until he escaped and came to America and found great success here.  So can mankind also escape its childhood and go to a different place and find happiness and success? 

While Dragon was getting ready to launch, a white policeman was pressing his knee into a black man’s neck until the black man died – while cameras watched.  The policeman looked straight at the cameras as if he was doing nothing wrong.  The whole world already reeling from a deadly COVID-19 virus, erupted.  It would be an understatement to say that the two pictures of the rocket and of the policeman kneeling on the neck of another human being, are highly incongruent to our minds.  How can so much technological progress take place while mankind’s moral behavior still remains the same as that of a million years back?  One can easily picture a Neanderthal leaning on another Neanderthal’s neck, a Mediaeval warrior doing the same, or this happening in the World Wars.   It also seems to be happening uninterrupted in the US from the time of the slave trade to the present.

In that respect, nothing has changed, and there are no signs that anything will change.  So it would be no surprise if, on Mars, a similar scene is enacted.  And just like back on earth, there may be another World War.  The US has already made plans for a Space Force, and other countries are doing the same.  Inevitably, conflict is likely.  Will there be a nuclear war in outer space.   At some time in the future, will humans on the earth watch flashes of energy on the moon and Mars, which they know are bombs being dropped on the enemy or by the enemy?  What would Musk think, if when he is old, this kind of scenario is playing out in front of his eyes?  Will he shrug it off, attributing it to the nature of mankind, and keep dreaming about conquering other planets.  The dichotomy and vast chasm between the thinking and the emotional aspects of human nature could never be greater.  And yet, we continue to struggle to explain these two aspects of human behavior.

A simple, if not simplistic, explanation is given by Koestler in his book – ‘The Ghost in the Machine.’ In the book he attributes the self-destructive nature of human beings to the flawed architecture of the brain. Mclean’s formulation of the triune brain with the cognitive, emotional, and reptilian brains working concurrently and to a large extent independently within the human brain, may also explain the contradictions of human behavior.  It would explain the rapid advancements in rocket technology while little or no improvement in humans’ violent and destructive nature. So if you go to the first-principles and see the brain as it is, you find a flawed structure.   And if that is the case, then reaching the moon and Mars is likely to amplify mankind’s tendency for self-destruction, rather than solve it.   

Freud, in a rare letter exchange with Einstein, was asked about how violent human conflict could be avoided. Freud expressed deep pessimism about the ability of humans to control their aggression. He felt that the only way this may be achieved is through social institutions which formulate a code of conduct for everybody to follow. Religion is one such social institution.   Messiahs of the world’s religions have all come up with solutions quite similar to each other, though in different forms and shapes.   ‘Love thy neighbor’ runs in all religions except in some when it is fine to be violent if you want the other to accept your gospel.  What is fascinating is that many of these solutions were formed hundreds and thousands of years ago.  But unlike the advancement in technology,  there has been no advancement in most religions’ moral code. In fact, the tendency is to interpret the religious doctrines, precisely as they were formulated thousands of years back.  Humankind has no confidence in its ability to interpret moral issues any better now than in the infancy of human civilization.  Needless to say that these interpretations are not only outdated but have often led to greater acts of violence.  The human tendency for violent behavior has increased and become much more threatening to mankind’s existence since man sailed and discovered new continents. And this tendency is likely to increase further when mankind colonizes the moon and Mars.

Musk may be advised to go back to the first-principles and also tackle the problem of the flaw in the human brain architecture. Developing the technology of matter without progress in the development of the mind may lead to even greater acts of self-destruction. However, it may be much more challenging to fix the flaws of the brain architecture – it is not rocket science.

Can the Brain understand the Brain: Incompleteness, Uncertainty and Strange Loops

To make the human brain better, humans first have to understand how the brain functions.  However, that task is much more difficult than what it seems like on the surface.

Besides the great difficulties in investigating higher mental functions, which are common with all epistemology, we are faced with some unique challenges when the brain tries to study itself.  These difficulties have more in common with investigations in mathematics and physics, where problems of measuring and describing a system while being within the system itself have been studied in more detail.  These difficulties are – 1) Is it possible for an observer within the system to study and understand the system wholly and accurately; 2) Is it possible for an observer in the system to study the system without changing it; 3) How can a system reflect upon itself?

Kurt Godel described the limits of a logical system to fully understand itself in his Incompleteness Theorem: a system with self-evident assumptions (axioms) will always contain unanswerable questions if consistent and if all questions can be answered, some of the answers may not be accurate and the system will be inconsistent.   In the case of the brain, by definition, any starting point of investigation regarding the brain about itself is a  ‘self-evident’ property.  Therefore, even questions about its basic functions may be unanswerable.  This may be a reason why even the salient properties of the brain such as volition, consciousness, emotions, self-identity, and abstract thinking are so difficult to conceptualize and study. Despite decades of research, very little is known about mechanisms behind these functions.  Keeping Godel’s theorems in mind, the only way a true understanding of brain function may arise is if something outside the system would study the brain.  At present, there are two possible candidates to conduct such an investigation – an artificial entity or an alien life force. In the case of an artificial entity, the limitation would be that the artificial entity is likely to be developed by humans and so may suffer the same limitations of logical accuracy and consistency as the human brain itself.  The case of an alien life force is purely speculative and assumes that even if such an entity exists it has some interest in studying the human brain.

A second limitation of the brain studying the brain arises from the principle of physics that an observer while studying a system changes the system.  Also known as the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, this phenomenon becomes very pertinent to the brain even if the investigation is merely thinking about itself.  Descartes’ “I think therefore I am’  is not entirely accurate if as soon as somebody starts thinking about themselves, they induce a change in the ‘I am’.  Furthermore, the current methods of conducting human brain research are so intrusive and uncontrolled that the investigator or observer changes the system dramatically.  A common method is to study brain function is to use a brain scanner, e.g., a PET scan or a structural or functional MRI scan.  At present, the technology of obtaining neurochemical and physiological measures of brain function is primitive in nature and most images are noisy and distorted.   Beside brain imaging artifacts, scan testing is usually anxiety provoking, and it is difficult to translate findings from a person while lying in a scanner to a person while going about in real life.  Ethical issues of studying living human brain function lead to further confounds of subject selection, adequate controls, and confounding factors such as medications or drug use.  In this scenario, obtaining objective knowledge regarding brain functioning free of observer bias or effect seems to be quite impossible.  Quantification and statistical analyses of these images have been unable to provide any deep understanding of higher brain function in health and disease despite decades of research.  The Uncertainty Principle is difficult to get around by definition, so all that can be done is to reduce its impact as much as possible.  This requires an exponential increase in the technology to study the living brain so that information can be obtained with minimal artifacts and with the least amount of disturbance to the system.

Finally, the very process of brain delving deeper and deeper into itself, parsing its functioning and physiology into smaller bits and then coming back to how that knowledge determines behavior, identity and consciousness seems like very strange endeavor. Douglas Hofstadter has coined the term – ‘strange loop’ in which delving deeper into levels leads to coming up to the starting level again.  At present, a strange  loop seems to exist in neuroscience research between system-level neural circuit oscillations as the basis of human behavior and reductionist-formulations of a single gene or molecule determining behavior.  Brain function is thought to arise from neuronal firings which are then related to subgroups firing, then to membrane electrical potential changes, then to molecular changes such as protein changes or gene expression changes. However, this reductionist approach has not yielded any particular molecular or gene expression abnormality related to higher mental function.  Therefore, it has to be postulated that a pattern of interaction between genes or molecular changes may explain the behavior.  To test this out, dynamic pattern of changes at the molecular level need to be looped back to neuronal firing and oscillations and group of neurons firing.  Most of neuroscience research at present follows one arm of the loop: from behavior to single molecule or brain region abnormality. Even though this reductionist approach has not led to any major findings in terms of the basis for higher level mental function, it remains the dominant paradigm in neuroscience investigations.  This may be due to a stubborn reductionist philosophy in science, a byproduct of how funding mechanisms reward research into the identification of single discrete findings, and publication bias which also caters to the same biases. The other arm of the strange loop – starting from dynamic relationship of molecular changes and working up towards neuronal level firings and networks changes has not been pursued as much. Whether following the full loop will increase our understanding of the brain or such scientific investigation will meaninglessly keep on looping back on itself remains unclear at this stage.